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date: 29 February 2024

Leibovitz, Annie

The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art

Sandra Sider

Leibovitz, Annie 

(b Waterbury, CT, 2 Oct 1949),

photographer. Born Anna-Lou Leibovitz, she was one of six siblings in a family that traveled extensively because her father was an officer in the US Air Force. Her mother, who taught modern dance, encouraged her daughter to pursue a career in the arts. While a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Leibovitz at first focused on painting, but then she took a photography class that captivated her. After spending a brief period on a kibbutz in Israel, she earned her BFA in 1971. Leibovitz landed a job as a staff photographer with the new magazine Rolling Stone and began to document the rock music scene. For ten years Leibovitz was the publication's chief photographer. In 1983 she began to work for Vanity Fair, photographing celebrities for numerous covers and feature articles, and her work has been published in many other magazines. From the 1980s Leibovitz began working on advertising campaigns, for which she won a CLIO award in 1987, and commissions, including an official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (2007). The National Portrait Gallery in Washington mounted a 20-year retrospective exhibition of her work in 1991, and in 2005 the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibited examples of her photographs taken between 1990 and 2005. Leibovitz, a single mother, gave birth to a daughter when she was 51, and had twin daughters via a surrogate mother four years later. Her closest friend and partner for many years was the writer Susan Sontag, whose death in 2004 profoundly affected Leibovitz's work.

Leibovitz's photographs for Rolling Stone made her internationally famous during her 20s, especially after she accompanied the Rolling Stones during their 1975 concert tour. Her documentary shots included messy hotel rooms and backstage scenes revealing the edginess of the music tour circuit. These hip images, with impromptu, surprising poses, are imbued with the saturated colors that become Leibovitz's signature style. She later collaborated with her portrait subjects, directing them with props at various locations. For Rolling Stone her most famous image depicts a nude John Lennon curled around a clothed Yoko Ono, photographed in 1981 on the day Lennon died. Other work relating to popular music includes her photography for album covers, such as Bruce Springsteen's Born in the USA album and Cyndi Lauper's True Colors album. In the dance world, Leibovitz has documented the White Oak Dance Project for Mikhail Baryshnikov, and collaborated with the Mark Morris Dance Group, including a series of nude portraits of his dancers. She was commissioned by the American Ballet Theater to create the portraits for their 50-year anniversary publication in 1989.

Music has been a recurring theme in Leibovitz's work, as can be seen in her 2003 book American Music. These portraits run the gamut of 20th-century music, from popular crooners to blues guitarists in the rural South. The moodiness of the imagery reflects the individuality of her subjects, with many of the settings suggesting a narrative of poverty and determination. Leibovitz allows the physicality of the musicians' equipment to intrude into the shots, grounding the subjects in a world of wires, plugs and instruments. The stark realism of these portraits points toward the personal turn her work took, especially after the deaths of Susan Sontag and Leibovitz's father (who also died in 2004).

Leibovitz's hallmark has been the “fondly transgressive” celebrity portrait, responding to and promoting the public's assumption that celebrities live outside the normal limitations of social conventions. Probably the most iconic of these portraits would be the cover of Vanity Fair depicting the actress Demi Moore nude and heavily pregnant. In addition to capturing subjects in private moments, such as Jack Nicholson hitting golf balls in his back yard and Bill Gates seated at his computer, Leibovitz has staged some bizarre and interesting portraits, including Whoopi Goldberg, shot from above, partially submerged in a bathtub filled with milk, Keith Haring painted like one of his canvases, Kate Winslet in a large fish tank and Clint Eastwood tied up in ropes. Occasionally Leibovitz's work provokes controversy, such as her depiction of 15-year-old singer and actress Miley Cyrus partially nude in a somewhat provocative yet beautiful pose on the cover of Vanity Fair. Leibovitz defends the photograph as a simple, classic portrait. Her portrait of 80-year-old Queen Elizabeth also stirred up negative comments from the press, partly because Leibovitz wanted to photograph her in a candid pose, without her crown. The final portrait selected by the queen is quite somber and formal, much like a royal portrait by Cecil Beaton. Leibovitz has also photographed celebrities in groups and pairs, notably ten director–actor pairs published in the March 2009 issue of Vanity Fair. The subjects, who include Woody Allen with Penelope Cruz, Ron Howard with Tom Hanks, and John Patrick Shanley with Meryl Streep, were all nominated for Academy Awards.

In her commission for Disney World's Year of a Million Dreams, Leibovitz asked several famous individuals to play the roles of famous storybook characters, such as Scarlett Johansson as the princess Cinderella and David Beckham as the prince who rescues Sleeping Beauty. The photo shoot for Alice in Wonderland typified a Leibovitz commercial production, with giant teacups from Disneyland weighing hundreds of pounds shipped to the photographer's farm in upstate New York. Leibovitz persuaded Beyoncé Knowles to play Alice, Oliver Platt to play the Mad Hatter and Lyle Lovett to play the March Hare. Leibovitz embraced digital photography, and the Disney images in this series have been digitally manipulated to insert visual elements from Disney locations, such as Cinderella's palace from Disney World.

When Leibovitz undertakes a major portrait, she often spends days with the subject at more than one location, getting a feel for the contextual elements that might be used in her composition. She looks at lighting, furniture, backgrounds, clothing (sometimes bringing costumes) and considers poses that could be relevant—or ironic—concerning her subjects. If a certain pose works in one context, she freely uses it again, such as Tom Cruise cradling baby Suri in his jacket like Paul McCartney did with baby Sun. Even though her subjects occasionally suggest their own costumes and poses, Leibovitz maintains creative control in her commercial shoots, selecting the final images to be considered for publication.

Leibovitz's 2006 book A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005 recapitulates her retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which may represent a new direction in her work toward more personal attention to her subjects. “Her fans may be astonished both by the range of the work and the unstudied, everyday quality of some of the images—a family day at the beach, a newborn in the delivery room.” Mingling celebrity portraits with shots that could have come from Leibovitz's family scrapbook, the book, like the exhibition, was created by Leibovitz in response to what she felt would have been Susan Sontag's wishes. The photographs include very honest and raw images of Sontag ravaged with cancer and on her deathbed.

Sontag's influence on Leibovitz's work and career began with her essays on photography, which first were published in the New York Review of Books in 1973, only two years after Leibovitz had moved to New York, still an impressionable young photographer in her early 20s. At that time, Sontag viewed photography as a cool medium of reportage, in which the photographer did not become involved with the subject. When Sontag's collected essays On Photography were published in book form in 1977, it won the National Book Critic's Award, which would not have failed to impress Leibovitz. But then in 2004, shortly before her death, Sontag partially refuted her theory of non-intervention in her book Regarding the Pain of Others. Leibovitz seemed to be responding to this revisionism in A Photographer's Life, exposing her emotional involvement with her own family and with Sontag. Images communicating emotion and loss had surfaced earlier in Leibovitz's career, notably in several photographs taken in 1993 and 1994 in wartime Sarajevo. She made that trip largely due to Sontag's urging.

“I'm not a great studio portraitist,” she says in the introduction to A Photographer's Life. Her standard of excellence is Richard Avedon. “His work is a great reminder about trying to be simple and strong,” she writes. Avedon had a talent for getting his subjects “animated, or thinking about anything but having their picture taken…. I'm still learning how to make the portrait more alive.” Although some critics consider Leibovitz as a commercial photographer and not a true artist with a personal vision, Leibovitz makes the point that much of her work has been done on assignments in which she often had to satisfy the agendas of her employers. Nevertheless, she feels that her overall body of work speaks for itself. Leibovitz has revolutionized American portrait photography, making it as much about the photograph as it is about the subject.


A Photographer's Life, 1990–2005 (New York, 2006)Find this resource:

S. DeLano, ed.: Annie Leibovitz at Work (New York, 2008) [conversations with S. DeLano]Find this resource:

Photographic Publications

American Ballet Theatre: The First Fifty Years—Portraits by Annie Leibovitz (New York, 1989)Find this resource:

Photographs: Annie Leibovitz (New York, 1991)Find this resource:

Dancers (Washington, 1992)Find this resource:

Olympic Portraits (Boston, 1996)Find this resource:

American Music (New York, 2003)Find this resource:

M. Harris: Aperture: On Location—Studio Visits with Annie Leibovitz, Lorna Simpson, Susan Meiselas, Cindy Sherman, Adam Fuss, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jon Goodman (New York, 1993)Find this resource:

Annie Leibovitz: Women (exh. cat., text by S. Sontag, Miami, FL, A. Mus., and elsewhere, 2001–2)Find this resource:

J. Scott: “From Annie Leibovitz: Life, and Death, Examined,” NY Times (6 Oct 2006)Find this resource:

C. Molesworth: “The Photography of Annie Leibovitz: Form and Fame,” Salmagundi, 155–156 (Summer–Fall 2007), pp. 31–40Find this resource:

Sandra Sider